JERUSALEM – Israel moved closer to yet another early election on Wednesday, the fourth in two years after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s disappointed coalition partners joined the opposition in a preliminary vote to overthrow the unity government in which they serve.

The bill to disperse the Knesset or 120-seat parliament and hold new elections heralded a new period of political instability and upheaval, although the government did not fall immediately. The motion was passed by 61 to 54, with five legislators absent. Now it has to go to committee and pass three more readings before it becomes law.

In any case, the Knesset will automatically dissolve and the elections will be scheduled for the end of March if a state budget is not approved by December 23rd. So far, Mr. Netanyahu has refused to approve a 2020 budget or submit one for 2021.

Billed as an emergency coalition, the government was supposedly formed to tackle the public health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, it was largely paralyzed in the dispute over the long-belated approval of a state budget, while appointments to key vacant positions in government and the public sector were frozen.

“These last few months have been difficult,” said Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, in a speech introducing the law. “They weren’t just difficult because of the health crisis. They weren’t just difficult because of the economic catastrophe. They have been difficult because of the deep failure of this government. “

The government was sworn in only six months ago after three inconclusive elections ended with no candidate able to achieve a parliamentary majority. In the end, Mr. Netanyahu of the conservative Likud party persuaded his main rival Benny Gantz, a former army chief and leader of the centrist blue-white party, to join him in a unity government.

Mr Gantz, who broke an election promise by joining Mr Netanyahu’s government and has since lost much of his public support, voted on Wednesday to dissolve it.

Israel has just emerged from a second national lockdown, but as infections picked up again, health experts were warning of a third.

Israeli analysts have been predicting for months that Mr Netanyahu would support early elections instead of seeing Mr Gantz take over the post of prime minister in a year’s time, as set out in their coalition agreement. Few people, including Mr. Gantz, expected this to actually happen.

Likud lawmakers have openly stated that Mr Gantz no longer has enough public support to serve as prime minister.

With a corruption allegation trial expected to enter the evidence phase in February, Netanyahu is holding onto power so he can take advantage of high office to fight the case. A new election could strengthen his position.

Recent opinion polls have put Likud firmly at the top, showing that Mr Netanyahu could even assemble a right-wing religious coalition that could give him immunity from prosecution.

The opposition would enter an election campaign weakened and fragmented.

Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu blamed each other for the coalition crisis.

“Netanyahu didn’t lie to me – he lied to you all,” said Mr Gantz in an angry televised address on Tuesday evening. “He did not mislead me. He has led the whole nation astray. “

He added, “Netanyahu is on a path of personal survival. The only index to his decision making is relevance to his ability to evade the process that is just around the corner. “

In a video statement released shortly before Mr. Gantz’s speech, Mr. Netanyahu said, “I’ve said for a long time this is not the time for elections – this is the time for unity.” He accused Mr. Gantz of “forming a government within the government”.

Despite voting with the opposition to overthrow the government, Mr Gantz left the door open to a deal, saying the government would be bailed if a budget were approved by December 23.

Some lawmakers said talks were ongoing to form an alternative government with no elections, although the chances were slim that another coalition could be formed and command a majority in parliament.

In the perverted world of Israeli politics, the votes of Netanyahu and Gantz on Wednesday were not necessarily indicative of their true position.

Mr Netanyahu is pushing for elections but voted against the bill to disperse parliament because he did not want to be held responsible for the early voting, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan research organization in Jerusalem. Mr Gantz voted in favor, despite fear of elections, added Mr Plesner.

Mr. Gantz is “in a conflict of interest,” said Mr. Plesner, because he no longer wants to show weakness by giving in to Mr. Netanyahu. By voting against his own government, said Mr Plesner, Mr Gantz “crossed a threshold”.

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